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For Israelis, papal visit struck a deep chord

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Avraham Gleicher, a 42-year-old optician and Orthodox Jew, surprised himself during Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land. He developed strong feelings of affection for the leader of the Catholic church.

For Gleicher, Christianity and Catholicism were - and remain - associated mostly with persecution of the Jews down the centuries, from the crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to the silence and perceived inaction of the Vatican during the Nazi Holocaust.

“We have a historical problem with the church, but we appreciate this man very much,” he said. “Even those who did not like the church felt an affinity for him.”

Gleicher grinned as he recalled John Paul praying at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site on Sunday, the last day of his visit.

“This was a nice visit,” he said of the six-day pilgrimage. “There were many beautiful moments.”

Added Aviahai Shahar, 21, a soldier: “It was clear that he came here to connect with Judaism, not just Christianity.”

Other Israelis cited John Paul’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and his poignant encounters there with survivors and old friends from his native Poland as the highlight of the visit.

Two days after the pope departed, there was a sense that he had touched the country in a way unseen since Jordan’s King Hussein three years ago visited Israelis who had lost children in a shooting attack by a deranged Jordanian soldier. The king knelt in an unprecedented gesture of contrition that cut across Arab-Israeli bitterness and hatred and was widely recalled when he died last year.

The pope clearly struck a powerful chord by evincing kindness, frailty and love for Jews and the Old Testament tradition. For Israeli leaders, John Paul’s pilgrimage offered proof of a transformation in the Catholic church’s attitude toward Jews from contempt and hostility to sympathy and friendship during the period from 1965 to the present.

It was 35 years ago that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) promulgated Nostra Aetate, which rejected the idea of Jewish collective or continuous responsibility for the death of Jesus, affirmed God’s covenant with the Jewish people as eternal and unbroken, condemned anti-Semitism and emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity, a theme stressed by John Paul during his pilgrimage.

Under John Paul’s leadership, the Vatican recognized Israel in 1993, after the signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles.

Analysts differed over how long lasting the impact of the visit would be or whether the Israeli affection would - or could - reach beyond John Paul himself to encompass the larger community he represents.

“For most people this was a gigantic media event. Any changes [in attitude toward Christianity] will be superficial,” said Tom Segev, author of The Seventh Million, a book about the relationship between the Holocaust and Zionism. “Israelis learned to like the pope. But their feelings were concentrated on his personality. It wasn’t a deeper encounter with Christianity.”

“Most Israelis don’t know anything about Christianity,” he added. “The deeper changes should start with textbooks. You have to know something about Christianity before attitudes can be changed.”

The assessment contrasted sharply with the ebullient view of Haim Ramon, the Israeli minister in charge of the pope’s visit. “I believe that this visit brings an end to the era of conflict, the era of dispute and the era of war between Christianity and Judaism,” Ramon said. “After 2,000 years that these two great monotheistic religions fought each other and in the Christian case even discriminated, deported, murdered, tortured - that era is coming to an end.”

Joseph Alpher, former head of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, noted that Israel’s main religious parties boycotted the visit in an indication that for them the enmity and suspicion was not diminishing.

At the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., John Paul followed Jewish tradition by placing a note between the crevices, intended as a request for God. The text was taken from a speech in Rome he made earlier this month, expressing sorrow for past misdeeds of the church. “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

The text and other statements by the pope underscored a bid to stress the common ground between Jews and Christians, said Alpher. “The message I got from the pope is that Catholics are interested in looking at their roots in Old Testament Judaism.”

But beyond speeches and texts, the image of the elderly pontiff bending over in prayer at the Wall will endure for a long time, said Shlomo Avineri, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. “This is a picture that will appear in the history books - both Catholic and Jewish,” he predicted.

At Yad Vashem, the pope said: “Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord and look to Abraham as our common father in faith.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, after recounting the extermination of his Polish Jewish grandparents at Treblinka, responded: “And I can say, Your Holiness, that your coming here today, to the Tent of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, is a climax of this historic journey of healing. Here, right now, time itself has come to a standstill. This very moment holds within it 2000 years of history, and their weight is almost too much to bear.”

One survivor, Edith Tzirer, wept as she told the pope he had saved her life in 1945, when he was a young priest, by giving her food and carrying her on his back for three kilometers when she was drained of strength. “I thought he was God himself,” she told a television interviewer, in recalling the incident. (The pope’s official Polish biographer later said he thought Tzirer may have been confused about the identity of the person who assisted her. Karol Wojtyla, who became John Paul II, was a seminarian at the time.)

“The pope came across as a survivor during the Yad Vashem visit, definitely not as an accomplice to the silence of Pius XII,” Segev, the author, said. “This was very moving for us. He came across almost as one of us.”

But Segev, writing in the Ha’aretz daily newspaper, took issue with the pope for equating anti-Jewish feelings among Christians to anti-Christian feelings among Jews. “Many Jews are indeed hostile to Christianity,” he wrote. “But they did not try to force Christians to convert and they did not persecute them. That is something that Christians did to Jews.”

While there were voices that complained that the pope had stopped short of apologizing for the silence of Pope Pius, those voices did not resonate very far. Commentators said such an apology was never a realistic expectation. “Can a church that believes itself to be the repository of divine truth admit it was basically wrong? Can a pope criticize one of his predecessors?” asked Avineri.

“Some people wanted an apology, but what was so impressive for most was that [during his visit to Israel] the pope radiated so much dignity and piety and had positive messages and warm things to say,” said Alpher.

Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Inter-Religious Coordinating Council in Israel, said that the process of reconciliation with Judaism “is now entrenched in the church. The new thinking on the Jews is church [policy]. It would take an extremely conservative pope to undo all of this. I don’t think it’s possible. A conservative pope could come in and slow it down perhaps.”

“There have been major changes during the last 35 years. This visit by the pope was a series of milestones in those changes, and I think it will have a lasting effect,” Kronish said. “It’s not just this person, but the church itself. Of course, this person being the Polish pope, coming from where he came from, knowing Jews, added a very special personal [element] to it. I think it will go on.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000